„First Things”, June/July 2011.
„Therein lies the danger of our enthusiasm for „critical thinking”. If we fear error too much and thus overvalue critical thinking, we develop a mind active and able to doubt but largely untrained to move toward belief, which is, after all, the main work of the mind. A mentality too quick to find reasons not to nurture convictions runs the risk of ending up more empty than accurate.
In my experience it’s not just a risk but a reality. Although the modern university is full of trite, politically correct pieties, for the most part its educational culture is skeptical and cautious to a fault. Students are trained- I was trained- to believe as little as possible so that their minds can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequence is an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on a starvation diet of small, inconsequential truths- facts and theories unrelated to any deeper meaning- because those are the only truths of which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.
In a startling passage Newman writes: „I would rather have to maintain that we ought to begin with believing everything that is offered to our acceptance, than that it is our duty to doubt everything. The former, indeed, seems the true way of learning.” Of course we don’t face such a stark choice: believing or doubting everything. But by putting it in exaggerated terms, Newman helps us to see that in the intellectual life we invariably learn one way or the other. We tilt in the direction of either believing in order to know or doubting in order to avoid error.
A great deal is at stake, and we are foolish indeed if we imagine, as I once did, that critical thinking offers nothing but advantages. We can rightly worry about getting on the wrong train on the foreign train station whose signs we can’t read. But we should also worry about dithering in the station too long and thus failing to get on the right train, which is the reason we went to the station on the first place. This it seems to me, is the essence of Newman’s insight. Sometimes the dangers of failing to affirm the truth are far greater than the dangers of wrongly affirming falsehood.
If we see this danger- the danger of truths lost, insights missed, convictions never formed- then our approach to reasoning changes, and the burdens of proof shift. We begin to cherish books and teachers and friends who push us, as it were, onto certain trains of thought, romancing us with the possibilities of truth rather than always cautioning and checking our tendency to believe. Errors risked now seem worth the rich reward of engrossing, life-commanding truths- the truths that are accessible only to a mind passionate with the intimacy of conviction rather than coldly and critically distant.
There are some things that we know only if we embrace them with love, giving ourselves to beliefs with a seemingly reckless abandon- and this critical reason cannot train us to do. As the ancient Greek translation of Isaiah 7:9 puts it, „Unless you believe, you shall not understand.” It’s a truth that St. Anselm formulated as a maxim, not just for the life of faith but for the life of the mind: Credo ut intelligam, I believe so that I may understand.”